From a U.S. hostage in the Colombian jungle, a marriage proposal
While his Colombian girlfriend and twin sons wait, American captive Keith Stansell reaches out.
Five years later, she is still waiting for him to return.
His plane crashed, and Mr. Stansell is one of three Americans held hostage by Colombia's Marxist rebels. He has never seen his 5-year-old twin boys. But early this year he sent Patricia a message: "Will you be my wife?"
Patricia's is one of an estimated 2,800 Colombian families who struggle to keep their hopes, and the memories of their kidnapped relatives, alive. Mostly, they do small things, like celebrate their loved one's birthdays and send out radio messages late at night.
"The families often suffer greater psychological damage than the people who were kidnapped," says Olga Lucia Gomez, head of Pais Libre, a nonprofit group that helps families of kidnap victims. "The hostage knows how he is, where he is, and his state of health. The families don't know," she says.
But sometimes, they get news – or in Patricia's case, a marriage proposal.
On March 3, Patricia waited at Bogotá airport to meet a group of hostages released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels at the request of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. One of those hostages was former Colombian senator Luis Eladio Perez. He had spent 2-1/2 years in the same guerrilla camps as Stansell and two other American hostages, Tom Howes and Marc Gonsalves, who were also on the plane when its engine failed.
During his years as a hostage Senator Perez got to know the Americans very well. Indeed, he was chained by the neck to Mr. Howes for nine months.
Patricia, a flight attendant for Avianca, a Colombian airline, and had just gotten back on a flight from Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m.. She hadn't slept all night, but she stayed in the airport waiting all day for the freed hostages to arrive. Perez finally arrived in the airport that afternoon, surrounded by family and well-wishers.
After a few minutes, Perez's son told him Patricia was there, too.
"Are you Patricia?" Perez said. "I've got a message for you from Keith." He handed her a rose, and said, "It's the most beautiful message a woman can receive. Keith wants to know if you will be his wife."
"It took me by surprise, and I burst into tears," says Patricia. "I hugged the rose and said, 'Of course I will.' "
Perez told her to send him the answer via the radio broadcast "because he's waiting for your answer," Perez said.
Patricia first met Stansell in the business-class section of an Avianca flight from Bogotá to Panama. Apart from Stansell and two Colombian passengers, business class was empty, and the two got talking.
"Keith is very handsome," she says. "It was love at first sight."
They had been dating for 10 months, when Stansell was kidnapped on Feb. 13, 2003, after his single-engine Cessna died. The pilot made an emergency landing in a jungle clearing. Stansell was working as a private contractor for a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, and was on some kind of counternarcotics surveillance mission. The FARC is convinced it was a CIA spy flight.
All five crew members survived the crash, but had landed only a few hundred yards from a FARC camp. As they staggered from the plane, the guerrillas ran toward them shouting and firing in the air. They shot the American pilot and a Colombian police officer and took the other three on a forced march through the jungle, according to Perez, the former hostage.
As the plane went down, the pilot, Thomas Janis, had sent out the approximate coordinates of the crash site. Colombian Army helicopters arrived quickly and engaged in a firefight with the guerrillas. The FARC fired at the hostages' feet to make them run faster. They suspected that the Americans might have some kind of tracking device concealed on them, so forced them to march naked through the jungle, says Perez.
Four months later, Jorge Enrique Botero, a Colombian reporter with close contacts with the guerrillas, spent nearly two weeks walking through the jungle to the camp where the Americans were being held to film a "proof-of-life" video. Some of that footage was later shown on CBS's "60 Minutes."
In the interview, Stansell talked about the crash, about his life in the camp, and his opposition to a military rescue. He sent his love to his family in Bradenton, Fla., and to his fiancée in Georgia.
But he did not mention Patricia at all, which made her angry. But not as angry as the fact that Stansell had never told her that he was engaged.
Colombian families can send messages to kidnapped relatives via the radio program "Voices of Kidnapping," which goes out between midnight and 6 a.m. on Sunday.
Every Sunday morning, the hostages would listen. "We all woke up at midnight to listen to the program. It's like a religion," recalls Perez. "Keith's fiancée in Florida stopped sending messages after a while. Keith's parents have improved, but there was a time when they didn't send messages at all, and nor did his children in the US."
Stansell began to suspect that his fiancée in Georgia had left him when he stopped receiving messages from her after about a year. Then, he heard from his father via the radio program that she had married and started a new life.
"At the beginning, he was annoyed with Patricia for getting pregnant," Perez says. "But when he heard about the birth of the twins, he was overjoyed. And that was when he started to change and talk about her more affectionately. He started to feel an immense love for Patricia, for the messages that she sent him, for the way she looked after his children.
"Keith was very moved when he heard his children on the radio, and would talk about them for hours afterwards. We eventually got bored with listening to him," says Perez.
"Patricia is the one who has always been constant," he adds. "She goes on the radio all the time wishing him well. She gets the children to talk to him, and tells him how they are doing at school."
When Perez was told he would be freed, Stansell him to "tell Patricia he wanted to marry her, if she would have him."
What are the prospects for Stansell, Howes and Mr. Gonsalves, now the longest-held American hostages in the world?
The FARC say they are hoping to exchange them for high-ranking guerrilla commanders held in the US. But US officials say the US won't negotiate with a group on the State Department's terrorist list. In January, a senior FARC commander was sentenced to 60 years by a US court in connection with the kidnapping. The guerrillas responded by saying that the American hostages, too, would have to wait 60 years.
A French and a Swiss envoy are in Colombia this week to meet the new top FARC commander, Alfonso Cano, and discuss the possible release of hostages. France, Switzerland, and Spain have long been authorized by Colombia to negotiate with the FARC for a prisoner swap. But their efforts have had little success amid a military offensive that has driven the FARC deeper into the jungle.
Patricia's greatest fear is that Colombian special forces will attempt a military rescue. If attacked, the guerrillas have said they will kill the hostages.
Her sons are more optimistic than she is and pin their hopes on President Chávez, whom they met in Caracas last September. "Chávez said he is going to get our father back," says Keith Jr.
Patricia says she will wait for Stansell, however long it takes. "Keith is the person I've always dreamed of," she said. "I'm not interested in meeting anyone else. We'll probably live in the US when he gets released. That's something we'll have to discuss. I don't want to leave my job, but I doubt he'll want to stay in Colombia after this."